Animal Sacrifice: What does that mean?

12651464_xlThe “animal sacrifice” question comes up for Pagans with some frequency. When politician Dan Halloran was outed as Theodish (Norse Reconstruction), several journalists were quick to mention that his Norse group did animal sacrifice. They did also reference it in context, quoting people that indicate it’s similar to Jewish Kosher meat, where the food is eaten after. ingested after.

However, somehow the combo of animal sacrifice, and the insinuations that many Heathens are white supremecists, led a number of liberals to vehemently protest Halloran, calling him an anti-Semite, Neo Nazi, among other things.

Getting back to animal sacrifice, one of the first things I was taught to say, when explaining Paganism, is, “We don’t sacrifice animals, we aren’t evil.” And yet, the sacrifice–they ritual killing and eating–of animals is not necessarily a terrible thing.

There’s a big difference between ritual (and compassionate) killing of animals that a group will cook and eat together, and animal abuse. While many Vegans might disagree with my ethical stance, I think it’s worth looking at the question of animal sacrifice and the various traditions within and connected to modern Paganism. I wonder how we, as Pagans of many different stripes, can really support one another if we don’t have an understanding of the different faiths, or of different traditions?

I think that first, as Pagans (Pagans, Heathens, Earth-Centered Spirituality, Witches, Druids, Shamans, whatever you call yourself) we have to come to an agreement on what animal sacrifice means, with an eye towards a range of ethical practices, along with the ability to communicate them.

For some, animal sacrifice is really more like a sacred barbecue.

What’s the Difference?
For me, there’s a big difference between, ritually blessing and slaughtering a cow to feed a people at a holy feast, and killing the animal as quickly and humanely as possible….and capturing a cat or a goat, torturing it, and killing it, dedicating it to the gods. Both could probably fall under the words “animal sacrifice.” What’s an acceptable range of practices?

If we can have this discussion with ourselves, as Pagans, then, we can have interfaith discussions with other religions and be able to accurately offer discussion, comparison and contrast. Within the sphere of the different religions that make up Paganism, there are different approaches and views. I’ve been Pagan since I was 15 and always read or heard, “Animal sacrifice is bad, we don’t do that.” Usually “harm none” or the threefold law was cited, although that isn’t a moral code that every Pagan tradition follows.

Harm None?
Also, I consider my Pagan ancestors in Ireland and Germany. Do I believe that “harm none” was something they upheld as a value? Nope. Not by a long shot. 
In a tribe of ancient Pagans, they were often fighting other tribes of other ancient Pagans, possibly of the same general religion.  Their tribal witch/shaman/druid probably served several different types of functions within these conflicts. They may have actively taken up a blade to defend the tribe, or they  may have blessed their warriors, or been asked to curse the enemy tribe or offer spells to give their tribe’s warriors the power to overcome the enemy.
So harm none is more of a modern construct, which makes sense as most of us don’t need to go cattle-rieving to keep the tribe alive for the winter 😀
But, as a modern construct, let’s apply harm none to modern Pagans. If animal sacrifice isn’t ever ok, then how is it ok to eat meat? Just because I didn’t kill the animal myself, doesn’t mean it didn’t die to end up on my plate for dinner.
I’m a Pagan who does choose to eat meat, so that means I have to ethically and morally explore what the sacrifice of an animal for my dinner means. Ethically, I try to eat less red meat as the cattle industry is particularly environmentally damaging and unsustainable.  More and more, though, I feel as though I can’t ethically choose to eat meat unless I’m willing to be part of the slaughter, and I may some day raise chickens with the intent of killing them myself and eating them, or perhaps going deer hunting. I can’t pretend that the animal didn’t die just because it came to me in styrofoam packaging.
Sacrifice and Making Sacred
The word sacrifice means to make sacred. I’m a pantheist, so I don’t believe I can “make” an animal sacred, since it’s already a part of the divine flow of life force just the same as I am. But I can honor its sacredness. I can honor how that animal gives its life to be part of the cycle. Just as I thank the plant I harvest fruits or flowers from, I can honor the animal.
I can look at the animal sacrifices of different cultures through time. Some cultures sacrificed animals like bulls to the gods. Sometimes they offered the blood to the gods and ate the meat as part of a festival. Sometimes they’d burn the whole animal for the gods.
Two modern-day surviving animal sacrifice traditions come from Vodou and Santeria, which are two of the African Diasporic traditions. While I’m not an expert on either of these traditions, I do know some practitioners and have heard of, and witnessed, some of the practices.
Santeria will sacrifice an animal such as a chicken by doing magical work to, for instance, take negative energy out of a person and put it into a chicken. Thusly, in Santeria there is a taboo against eating the sacrificed animal since it’s perceived to hold negative energy. I’m unclear if Santeria eats other sacrificed animals.
In Vodou, my understanding is that typically there are large altars full of fruits, vegetables, and meat from the sacrificed animal, and that food is eaten by the gathered practitioners. But, this is also a matter of cultural context. Vodou is largely practiced in cultures founded by former slaves. Haiti is an island that has a large number of Vodoun practitioners, and is one of the poorest places in the world. So the contextual cultural information would be that sacrificing a chicken and not using the meat to feed the community is wasteful and perhaps even sacrilegious.
Obviously there are other contexts within Vodou for animal sacrifice that I don’t have knowledge of, so I won’t speak to Vodou as a whole, just the context of the practitioners that I’ve spoken to, and similarly with Santeria.
Sacrifice, Kosher, and Hallal Meat
My understanding of both Kosher and Hallal meat is that the animal is expected to be raised in humane conditions, and the animal is blessed as it is slaughtered, and it’s slaughtered as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’m sure there are other details and considerations, but I’d consider this to be a sacrificial animal–the animal is being blessed to a deity and being offered as a sacrifice to the people that follow that deity.
I can’t see how that would be any different than if I were to hunt a deer, and thank it as I shot it, and thank it again as I dressed it and prepared it, or if I did the same to a cow or a chicken. For me, it’s an important value (and this is where modern context meets ancient) to honor the animal in its part of the cycle, as well as to conserve resources.
Ecological Sustainability and Resources
I believe that if more people in Western “civilized” countries had more of a messy interaction with the food that goes into their bodies, whether growing vegetables or slaughtering their own animals on occasion, we’d have an easier time using less resources and trying to conserve resources to protect the ecosystem of our planet.
While conservation of resources is becoming a modern value based on what we now know is happening to our planet and our climate, it’s an ancient value as well, since an ancient Pagan tribe would have been a very careful steward of all resources because they know, as they harvest and slaughter, that those resources will have to last them through the winter.
I’d be really interested in seeing more Pagan conversations in different communities about the idea of animal sacrifice, what it means, and what we can agree on ethically (or a scope/range of ethical choices) so that when we communicate with the press, we can offer good examples to the media, and folks from other religions.
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